Mark Twain Prize creator recalls bringing Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray to White House

Hear the full conversation on today’s “Beyond the Fame” podcast.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Cappy McGarr's book (Part 1)

Cappy McGarr co-founded the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

On Tuesday, he tells all in his new book, “The Man Who Made Mark Twain Famous: Stories from the Kennedy Center, the White House and Other Comedy Venues.”

“It really started in the White House,” McGarr told WTOP. “John Schreiber, Mark Krantz and Murray Horwitz had lunch with the White House Social Secretary, Ann Stock, in the White House Mess. They wanted to do a comedy show in the White House. She said, ‘The White House isn’t really set up for that,’ so Ann Stock took it to the Kennedy Center.”

How did McGarr come on board for the first ceremony in 1998?

“I had done a radio program and standup comedy in college, so the president of the Kennedy Center said, ‘Can you come to this meeting to discuss a new comedy show?’ At that time, Peter Kaminski joined us, a writer for National Lampoon and his brother, Bob, joined later. … Larry Wilker, president of the Kennedy Center, green-lit the show.”

The book recounts McGarr’s countless celebrity encounters during Mark Twain Prize events, including Eddie Murphy meeting President Barack Obama at the White House.

“Eddie came into the Oval Office and the president says, ‘Eddie, you and I are the same age. You have no gray hair and I’ve got a lot of gray hair,'” McGarr said. “Eddie says, ‘Well, Mr. President … you’ve got a stressful job. All I do is make people laugh.’ The president looked at me, ‘Cappy, I’m funny aren’t I?’ … I said, ‘Yes, Mr. President, you’re very funny.'”

He also chronicles Bill Murray putting with President Obama in the Oval Office.

“They put down paper cups in the Oval Office,” McGarr said. “Bill says, ‘I’m not going to have a paper cup.’ … The president says, ‘Do we have a glass cup?’ … The president says, ‘Hey Bill, what about a dollar a hole?’ He says, ‘You’re on.’ … Bill gets five in a row and the president gets zip. … He turns to his aide, ‘Do you have $5? I owe it to Bill.'”

McGarr also has stories from the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, arguing with the Secret Service to get Paul McCartney’s bodyguard into the White House.

“I got a call from Paul McCartney’s worldwide manager saying … ‘If his bodyguard cannot come into the White House, Paul McCartney is not going to do the concert,'” McGarr said. “The head of the Secret Service and I met. … He said, ‘We’re going to let him in, but if he acts like a bodyguard, we will restrict him from every public building in the country.”

He also tells the touching story of a U.S. Capitol security guard thanking Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, who was in town to perform for David Letterman’s Mark Twain Prize ceremony.

“The security guard takes us up to the very top [of the Capitol],” McGarr said. “He looks at Eddie and said, ‘I’ve been to over 35 of your concerts. I had a very difficult time in my life. Thank you for saving my life.’ … Eddie gives him a huge hug and says, ‘You can come to any of my concerts any time and come back to the green room.'”

Most touching was Carl Reiner bringing his World War II veteran brother Charlie.

“We were all in the cabinet room: Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke, Jerry Seinfeld, Rob Reiner,” McGarr said. “Charlie was in a wheelchair. … President Clinton gets on his knees, grabs Charlie’s hands and says, ‘I’ve had a lot of important people in the Oval Office, but none as important as you. You were at the invasion of Normandy Beach.'”

As for the ceremony itself, his favorite acceptance speech was by Will Ferrell.

“We had 15 or 20 ceramic versions of the Mark Twain bust, which is bronze,” McGarr said. “He came out on stage, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Will Ferrell,’ and he actually dropped it and it shattered into 1,000 pieces. He put the pieces on the pedestal and then put Mark Twain’s broken head on the pedestal and said, ‘I”m going to treasure this forever.'”

So far, the prize has gone to Richard Pryor (1998), Jonathan Winters (1999), Carl Reiner (2000), Whoopi Goldberg (2001), Bob Newhart (2002), Lily Tomlin (2003), Lorne Michaels (2004), Steve Martin (2005), Neil Simon (2006), Billy Crystal (2007), George Carlin (2008), Bill Cosby (2009; rescinded in 2018), Tina Fey (2010), Will Ferrell (2011), Ellen DeGeneres (2012), Carol Burnett (2013), Jay Leno (2014), Eddie Murphy (2015), Bill Murray (2016), David Letterman (2017), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (2018) and Dave Chappelle (2019).

Still, there’s one that got away: Mel Brooks, to whom McGarr offered the Mark Twain Prize backstage when Brooks screened “Blazing Saddles” at the Kennedy Center in 2015.

“Mel Brooks has turned us down three times.” McGarr said. “The white whale that got away. … I said, ‘Look, Mel, if you say no, I’m gonna have to do a [‘Blazing Saddles’] No. 6 on you.’ … He laughed so hard I think I got some egg salad sandwich on my coat. … Mel Brooks is truly one of the people that 100% deserves the Mark Twain Prize.”

Who’s next? Jon Stewart? Chris Rock? Melissa McCarthy? Jerry Seinfeld once joked with me on the red carpet, “I don’t know what I have to achieve in comedy to receive that prize!”

“There is a list of potential Twain recipients,” McGarr said. “Chairman David Rubenstein, President Deborah Rutter and myself come up with that list. … There are so many: Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld. [Jim Carrey] is definitely on the list; it’s for American humor and all of his movies had great impact in America. He comes from a long list of funny comedians.”

Until then, pick up a copy of McGarr’s book for countless hilarious memories.

“Ken Burns is a longtime friend and he was nice enough to write my foreword,” McGarr said. “I think it’s a fun and funny read. I hope people enjoy it. It goes through every single Twain ceremony, including the White House back-scene stuff of all the Twain [encounters] in the White House, taking all these people in the Oval Office, it’s been quite a ride.”

All proceeds from the book will go to Kennedy Center’s arts education programs.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Cappy McGarr's book (Part 2)

Hear the full conversation on today’s “Beyond the Fame” podcast.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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